Raise awareness of environmental health issues in order to better protect our children and future generations.

06 July 2011

"Fallout" - Ionizing Radiation

We are experiencing "fallout" from the nuclear disaster in Japan – continued radiation, nuclear "alerts", a rise in anti-nuclear protests, government decisions to ban nuclear power and weakening of safety regulations for nuclear reactors.

Fukushima nuclear plant explosion

In the media in the United States, there has been little coverage of the human health risks of radiation escaping from Fukushima. To give one example of statements from US health authorities, on 19 March, a spokesperson from the California Department of Public health said at worst, radiation from Fukushima would have extremely minor health consequences in the US. This is akin to France having said in 1986 that the radiation from Chernobyl stopped at its borders, while its neighbor, Switzerland, was warning children and pregnant women not to consume milk, meat, and fresh vegetables in certain areas of the country.

The Department of Nuclear Engineering at the University of Berkeley continues to test soil, water and air as well as produce in California in order to ascertain the levels of radionuclides coming from the nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima. Elevated levels of radionuclides have been found in spinach and strawberries. This is very worrying because California provides 80% of fresh produce to the rest of the United States.

In countries like the United States and France which have the most nuclear reactors, it is suspected that the truth about Fukushima and even about the reactors in these other countries, is being covered up. Cancer cases may rise in future, as they did after the Chernobyl accident.

Many countries which have nuclear reactors are discussing the issues of nuclear safety and the necessity for “further research”. Certain nations have gone farther and have fixed a date for abandoning nuclear energy: for example, Germany, in 2022. Switzerland, which just voted to ban construction of new reactors, has chosen to write into law the maintenance of nuclear technologies and research. Its five reactors will be shut down when they no longer meet safety standards. This means that a date to abandon nuclear energy has not been set. The people in Italy decided not to put back into service its nuclear reactors. In Europe, as of 1 January 2011, there were 195 nuclear power plants in operation in 17 countries.

France has 58 nuclear reactors which generate 74% of its electricity. Years ago, on visits to Les Saintes-Maries-de la-Mer, near the Rhône Delta, signs on the Mediterranean beach warned about the presence of radioactive elements. These most likely come from the 20 nuclear power plants in the Rhône Valley, the most important concentration of nuclear stations in Europe.

Recently, there was a fire at the Tricastin nuclear plant in the Rhône Valley, just days after 32 safety concerns were identified at the plant. Although its owner, EDF (Electricité de France) said there was no radiation leak or other contamination from the incident, this plant is one of the oldest operating reactors in France. It was built in 1974 and went into operation in 1980. In 2007, a uranium leak was reported, contaminating nearby rivers. The plant is expected to be in operation another 10 years. Of France’s 58 reactors, 34% are of this type. Recently French President Nicholas Sarkozy pledged to invest one billion euros in nuclear power as well as “substantial resources” for research into nuclear safety.

In the United States, which has 104 nuclear reactors, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has decided from early May to monitor radiation levels only every 3 months. The US has also ceased to monitor levels in seafood from the Pacific Ocean. One reason may be that most of the other 49 reactors in Japan (which doesn’t include the 6 at Fukushima), were designed by American companies. Another is that the United States nuclear industry is requesting $36 billion in loan guarantees for new reactors. The EPA is reviewing a plan to dramatically increase acceptable levels of radioactivity in drinking water and soil following “radiological incidents”. In the ten weeks following the Fukushima disaster, cities in the northwestern part of the United States experienced a 35% increase in infant mortality which may be the result of the fallout from Japan.

Safety standards for aging reactors in the United States are being weakened or simply not enforced.  Of its 104 reactors , 82 are more than 25 years old.  One of the dangers is leaky pipes and vessels prone to cracking which could release radioactive elements into the environment.  The Union of Concerned Scientists reported more than 400 accidental radioactive leaks at nuclear sites since these reactors were built.  The United States Institute for Policy Studies reports that “more than 30 million highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel rods are submerged in vulnerable storage pools”.

Ft. Calhoun nuclear plant and flooded Missouri River

The flooding Missouri River is threatening two nuclear reactors in Nebraska (Ft. Calhoun). The situation has gone to alert no. 1 on the scale of nuclear incidents, “notification of unusual event”, which means events are in process or have occurred which indicate potential degradation of the safety level of the plant, but no release of radioactive material. The flood waters are predicted to continue to rise.

Regarding Fukushima, Japan placed the Fukushima nuclear disaster at level 7, maximum on the international scale of atomic crises, the same level as Chernobyl. Reactors 1, 2 and 3 experienced full meltdowns shortly after the earthquake and tsunami of 11 March, but Japan only admitted this one month later. TEPCO, the power plant’s owner, announced that the accident probably released more radioactive material into the environment than Chernobyl.

The exposed reactors are continuing to release particles. Japanese children are now wearing radiation monitors. Internal radioactive pollution is one of the very serious consequences of Chernobyl that the World Health Organization (WHO) continues to deny. Inhaled or ingested radioactive particles continue to irradiate the body and may lodge in the lungs and digestive tract, eventually causing cancer. The Japanese Government has weakened the limits of allowable radiation exposures for children, which means they are calling higher levels of radiation “safe” when there is no safe level of radiation for human consumption. Widespread internal radioactive contamination among Japanese in the Fukushima area has now been confirmed. Radioactive elements continue to be evacuated into the Pacific Ocean from the reactors, which may have dire consequences for marine life.

This is a very dangerous technology but not everyone, especially those in authority in pro-nuclear countries, is waking up to this fact. How many more disasters like Chernobyl or Fukushima will it take to realize this and choose to abandon nuclear power in favor of renewable energy sources?

by Meris Michaels

(Ref. Various news sources: Common Dreams, Associated Press enquiry into US nuclear safety .)

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